Jordan: Lessons From the Other Holy Land, Page Two

Jordan: Lessons From the Other Holy Land, Page Two

By Janis Turk

Chariot race at Jerash, Jordan
Chariot race at Jerash, Jordan

Archeologists estimate that the area was inhabited as far back as 3,200 BCE. The Roman conquest in 63 BCE made Jerash part of the Roman province of Syria. At the ruins in Jerash, there is even an ancient circus/hippodrome where visitors can see a historically accurate reenactment of a chariot race.

There is the beautiful Hadrian’s Arch and a long colonnade. Yellow wildflowers by the thousands dot the fields around columns lining ancient stone streets. There are theaters, baths, temples, and remains of a city wall. I see a great many lovely places like this near Amman, but I am in search of other sacred sites, and so I head south.

Theologian Paul Tillich writes of the distinction between what German theologian Martin Kähler called the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith — and while I grew up hearing stories concerning the historicity of Jesus, I’ve been much more interested in exploring something more ethereal, elusive — like faith, or that which Tillich would call “my ultimate concern.”

Here, along the back roads of Jordan,as I wander through places steeped in stories of Judeo-Christian and Islamic tradition, I wonder if I will also find lessons about the ultimate.

Along the southeastern coast of the Dead Sea, today known as Southern Ghor, is a place known in the Bible as the Valley of Salt. There sits Deir Ain Abata, which archeologists say may be the ancient cave of Lot, where he took refuge when the bacchanal cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed.

Lot's wife
Lot’s wife

I stop to look at a towering rock formation that is said to be Lot’s wife, turned to a pillar of salt because she turned to look back at the doomed cities.

Near here sprawl wide plains where Abraham and Lot divided their herds in the Old Testament stories and later where King David slew 18,000 Edomites.

Somewhere here, though scholars have different theories about where, may have been the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Holy Land indeed.

Mental note/lesson two: In order to move forward, don’t look back.

During our travels, we drive through lands where Moses is said to have wandered during part of the 40 years the Israelites spent lost the desert. Here, the story makes sense. I can certainly see how one could get lost here for that long. It all looks the same, which is to say awfu l— exposed to harsh heat and stony soil and stupid hardscrabble everything.

How cruel and unforgiving the ugly terrain. How high the desert mountains. Even now, Bedouins tents and sheep dot the stony hillsides while men and boys follow their smelly herds down unsteady steep paths.

The bus snakes down crooked roads through horribly steep hills into a deep valley. I feel carsick — as though I am falling into a sharp granite crevasse with mean edges. Where could this possibly end? How can I find my way out? I feel like the grumbly ungrateful Israelites following Moses around, saying. “Maybe slavery in Egypt wasn’t so bad! Shouldn’t we turn around and go back?”

Evanson Ma’In Hot Springs & Six Senses Spa resort is on Conde Nast’s Top 100 hotels list.
Evanson Ma’In Hot Springs & Six Senses Spa resort is on Conde Nast’s Top 100 hotels list.

Ah, but another lesson: To reach beauty, joy, one must journey deeper, through all the scary ugly parts.

For then, as if coming upon a land of milk and honey — or, rather like kids finding themselves inside the gates of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory (my sudden slack-jaw wonder is that overwhelming) — we come to the bottom of the earth and find an actual oasis of ferns, trees, flowers, fragrant breezes, and glistening white waterfalls falling from high steep cliffs into steaming hot springs.

Dazed, confused and, of course, delighted, my group checks into the ultra luxe Evanson Ma’In Hot Springs & Six Senses Spa resort, lying 866 feet (264 meters) below sea level — a place on Conde Nast’s Top 100 hotels list. But we don’t have time to “ooh and ahh” over the accommodations (which are squeal-worthy, believe me) for we are busy scrambling down to the edge of the water in our bathing suits.

The water is almost boiling hot, nearly scalding our skin as we race across the shallow rock-bed river to a place where cold water falls from cliffs several stories high and comingles with the hot springs below.

Later, when I explore the property, I visit the spa built into the side of a hill. There, the only sauna is a natural cave with candlelight and steam rising from the springs, and the pool is filled by an ever flowing waterfall from above.

A mosaic in Madaba, Jordan
A mosaic in Madaba, Jordan

It is there where I meet Rogerio Almeida, a Brazilian travel writer, floating in the pool and in no hurry to make the dinner that we’re obliged to attend in ten minutes. Rogerio, who may as well have “Carpe Diem” tattooed to his forehead for the way he lives, tells me that he accidently boarded the wrong plane and ended up in Bangkok yesterday. I like this guy.

The next day, we travel to Mount Nebo, where Moses first beheld the “Promised Land” to the west. (And I’m thinking, had Moses seen Ma’In instead, how much less trouble there’d be in the world today).

During the trip, we also visit the plateau and city of Madaba, known for its ancient mosaics dating between the 1st and 8th century AD — the most famous of those being the one in the early Byzantine church of Saint George, which depicts in minute detail an ancient map of the biblical lands inlaid in the floor.

Yet another truth: Beauty can come in tiny, dirty little pieces that you have to put together and get down on your knees to see sometimes. But oh what a wonder when you behold the bigger picture at last.

We see and do a great many other things in the beautiful Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, including spending a night in a Bedouin tent under the stars at the great desert to the south called Wadi Rum.

There are camels and tents and more stars than Abraham’s descendants, and much music, laughter, dancing and delight. Another night, we spend at the sparsely elegant Feynan Ecolodge a hundred miles from nowhere, a truly “green” hotel, lit only by candlelight with a rooftop patio where we count falling stars.

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